Study Shows Brain Injury Increases Drug, Alcohol Risk In Teens

By John Lavitt 02/09/15

Rates of alcohol and drug use increased dramatically in teens suffering from traumatic brain injury.

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Canadian researchers have found that teenagers who have suffered a concussion or other traumatic brain injury are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs compared to peers with no history of such an injury.

In a study published in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, Ontario high school students who had experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) were compared to their classmates. Incredibly, the use of non-prescribed tranquilizers and opioid pills as well as drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and crystal meth was two to four times higher for students suffering TBI.

Researchers defined a TBI as any hit or blow to the head that resulted in a student being knocked unconscious for at least five minutes or spending at least one night in hospital due to symptoms associated with the injury. Some of these brain injuries could have been classified as concussions, which are mild to moderate forms of brain injury. It was surprising how many students had experienced such an extreme injury.

One in five of the Grade 9 to 12 students reported a previous TBI or hard hit to the head. As a result, the study pool for comparative purposes turned out to be larger than expected. Besides having a higher rate of alcohol and drug use, students with past concussions also were 2.5 times more likely to have smoked one or more cigarettes daily during the previous year and nearly twice as likely to have engaged in binge drinking in the previous month. The definition of binge drinking is the consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks in a single sitting.

“It's a really toxic combination when you have the two together," said principal researcher, Dr. Michael Cusimano. "We know that people who have alcohol or substance use problems don't recover as well from a brain injury…They can't participate as well in the rehab, and they don't recover their original abilities as well as people who have not been using drugs and alcohol."

Early drug and alcohol use also can impede adolescent brain development. In addition, many recreational drugs also can affect physical performance and judgment, setting up a person for potential harm. In any given year, about 5% of teenagers will suffer a concussion or other brain injury, and about 60% of them will occur while participating in sports.

"What we found in this research is that… there does appear to be a cluster with these injuries of problematic behavior, substance abuse and mental health concerns," said Dr. Robert Mann, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the co-leader of the study. "The effects of the injury may be such that it may predispose them to use the substances."

"On the other hand, we also know that people who are substance users may be more likely to have these kinds of injuries," Mann continued. "The classic example is alcohol. Alcohol impairs psychomotor performance, so you're more likely to have an injury, perhaps more likely to have a head injury."

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.